Court Battles

Conservative Supreme Court reverses earlier decision on sovereign immunity

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a state can maintain its sovereign immunity from lawsuits in other states, reversing a prior decision from the high court.

In a 5-4 decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s conservative justices found that a state cannot be sued by a private party in another state court system without that state’s consent. The ruling overturns a previous 1979 decision that found the Constitution does not shield the states from private lawsuits in other states.

{mosads}Thomas wrote that the previous ruling “misreads the historical record and misapprehends the ‘implicit ordering of relationships within the federal system necessary to make the Constitution a workable governing charter and to give each provision within that document the full effect intended by the Framers.'”

He said the past precedent is “irreconcilable with our constitutional structure and with the historical evidence” showing that states have immunity from the private lawsuits.

The case sets the stage for a potential end to a decades-long dispute between microchip inventor Gilbert Hyatt and the California Franchise Tax Board. Hyatt had sued the board in a Nevada court, requesting he be awarded damages for the agency’s behavior during an audit surrounding his residency.

The board had suspected that Hyatt moved to Nevada in order to avoid paying personal income tax and conducted a thorough audit of him, during which they shared personal information with his business associates. Hyatt sued the tax agency in 1992 for damages resulting from the audit.

The case has come before the Supreme Court three times since then. The court, in its third ruling on Monday, found that the tax agency cannot be sued by Hyatt in a Nevada court.

Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, John Roberts and Samuel Alito joined in the opinion.

But Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, disputed the majority’s reasoning.

“[T]he relevant history and precedent refuted the claim that States are entitled to absolute immunity in each other’s courts,” Breyer wrote.

Breyer also criticized the court for reversing a ruling on a 5-4 decision, instead of with a larger majority.

“Today’s decision can only cause one to wonder which cases the court will overrule next,” Breyer wrote.

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